The Magical Invisibility Cloak Utilitarianism Wears in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism

In a philosophy seminar many years ago I called utilitarian ethics ‘the moral view from nowhere’. Like so many smart-ass undergrads I was riffing from a work that I knew my philosophy peers would have heard of—in this case, a very famous and influential work by Thomas Nagel called The View from Nowhere. Nagel asks a rather fascinating and perennial philosophical question: ‘Is it possible to honour our subjective experiential take on the world, and yet transcend this narrow perspective and attain a ‘disinterested’ objective perspective? If we could only rise above our own biases or prejudice, if we could somehow de-privilege our subjective experiential perspective, we might really get to the heart of the matter—to the truth of things. To put this in another way, the ‘view from nowhere’ is the view of ‘no particular subject at all’. Think of it as a kind of ‘god-like’ perspective. Many of us have grown up believing that disinterested observation and pure ‘objectivity’ are what make scientific advancement possible.

However, it is likely that most of the really fine scientists out there would laugh out loud if you said this to them. They would tell you that most working scientists and researchers, including physicists, are neither disinterested observers’ nor purely objective researchers—that they are just as biased, flawed and driven by the desire to get there first as any competitor in any field of human endeavor. In other words, they are just like the rest of us dopes—stumbling around in the dark, looking for missing things, making guesses and conjectures, hoping something will turn up.

If this is true of the so-called ‘natural sciences’, it is even more the case with the arts and social sciences. In matters of political, social and moral relations any sort of disinterested observation or pure objectivity is impossible. It is impossible because each of us is not only a historically, linguistically and culturally situated individual, but fundamentally an interpreting being that exists and understands itself and others within a infinitely wide web of relations, responsibilities and meanings that can never be simply excised or ‘disappeared’ at will. To ‘lift ourselves’ out of this web of relations would be like being entirely ‘lost in space’—no sense of direction, no familiar land masses no capacity to distinguish foreground from background, up from down.

This does not mean that we don’t often strive toward a level of critical distance even in the messy world of human affairs. Judges, lawyers, teachers, engineers, architects, speech-writers, politicians, movie critics, writers, psychologists, physicians all attempt in some measure to put aside what they know to be their own particular bias or predispositions in order to reasonably assess the state of things, give advice, craft an approach or understand where to go next. One of the most difficult things for me as a writer is to write something and then stand back from it as if I were not mine so that I might critically evaluate what I have written from a third person perspective. What we all begin to realize at some point, however, is that even if we can at times achieve a measure of critical distance, we can never entirely escape from ourselves. From an existential and experiential human perspective even ‘the view from nowhere’ will always be ‘a view from somewhere’. This brings me back to the question of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is one among a number of what might be called ‘consequentialist’ moral theories, all of which intend to help us to discover the rightness of a proposed action, procedure or policy based on what consequence or consequences might predictably follow from it’s adoption. There are many versions of consequentialism—hedonistic, egoistic, pluralistic, altruistic, evolutionary, pragmatic, rule or act-based etc. It becomes obvious from the above that one could easily imagine two distinct versions of consequentialist moral theory as in complete contradiction with each other. In this sense, consequentialist ethics is more like an abstract moral placeholder than a theory of ethics or the good. Thus, when I very glibly described utilitarianism as the ‘moral view from nowhere’ I was in effect saying that it operated under the pretence that it was simply a neutral principle, devoid of normative content. It didn’t presume to tell you what the good was, but instead provided an abstract formula or consequentialist ‘test’ to help you determine, through the counting of heads, what you ought to do in any given situation.

Described from the perspective of ethics or moral philosophy, utilitarianism is looked upon as a normative moral theory that promises agents a way to impartially determine what actions should be done based on their ‘utility’—and utility can be defined as the most pleasure-inducing or the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Of all consequentialist theories, utilitarianism is perhaps the most lauded and ubiquitous. There is a good reason for this outside of its apparently practical value—(which I will come to soon). It all sounds quite simple and useful—finally, with utilitarianism we have a very straightforward, unbiased, democratic way of determining the best thing to do in any given situation. But, I argued, growing ever more frustrated with my practically minded fellow students, ‘utilitarianism has no normative core, no practical or substantive solidity, because it is an entirely abstract and neutral calculative tool. But this, they said in a triumphal collective voice, was its true virtue! It didn’t presume to dictate to you in any specific way what was good; it simply gave you a neutral and objective way to make those determinations in each new situation based on a kind of pleasure-pain, cost-benefit analysis.

What I did not realize at the time was that this so-called ‘neutral tool’ could never be considered ‘neutral’ at anything but an abstract philosophical level. It could by no means be considered neutral within the framework of human action and politics. Why? Well, simply because it presupposes a very concrete theory of nature as well as human nature: an understanding of human beings not as unique, irreplaceable beings—as neighbors, friends, or members of a community oriented toward justice and fairness—but rather as nameless, faceless, calculating, hedonistic, atomistic units. Alongside of this it understands nature and the natural world of plants, animals, trees, oceans and mountains not as intrinsic goods in themselves, but merely as ‘things’ that have only human use-value.

This gives us a clue to understanding why utilitarianism is so attractive to a modern bureaucratized, consumerist culture that is prepared to uphold profit maximization over human health, environmental safety, clean water and nutritious food. In other words, utilitarianism is widely embraced precisely because it replaces the living, breathing, emotional and experiencing human being with the human as pleasure or profit maximizing machine; it prizes the quick technical fix over the difficult task of understanding the human condition; it valorizes thoughtless calculation over thoughtful ethical discernment and practical wisdom. Of course, you will not hear proponents speak of it in this way. Instead they will say utilitarianism is ubiquitous and valuable because it is, at heart, a truly ‘democratic’ moral principle. This bit of subterfuge is precisely, however, what renders the dark origins of what I have called ‘the moral view from nowhere’—utilitarianism—invisible. This happens the moment one begins to look at the historical origins of utilitarianism in the convergence of two very foundational theses, which derive from the 16th century figures, Galileo Galilei and Thomas Hobbes, and then situates the later within the political context of extractivist-industrialist, imperialist-colonialist expropriations of indigenous lands by various European nation-states.

The first, Galilean thesis, is that the world is discoverable and ultimately ‘knowable’ because it is just like a ‘machine’ that can be taken apart, measured and mathematicized. The second, Hobbesian thesis is that the human, just like the world, is very much like the Galilean machine that can be taken apart, measured and mathematicized. So why is this an advantage, and how does it connect up with utilitarianism? It is all too obvious: the moment you have a picture of the human being as no more than a pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding mathematizable, measurable machine, you have all the ingredients you need in order to make numerous calculations regarding what maxims or proposed actions will best realize the most amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain for all. Of course if you have a few sociologists and behavioral psychologists on your team, even better! And if you could feed all of this data into a modern computer where human pleasure=1 and human pain=0 you would have the hit the utilitarian jack-pot—the moral life of binary machine-like beings determined by the binary machine code. But we are getting historically ahead of ourselves. We’ve yet to situate the utilitarian moral framework within the political context of industrial colonial Europe.

So, begin by imagining that you are a person or a small minority of persons who have great wealth and vast property holdings, which you initially accumulated through inheritance or expropriation of the ‘commons’ and human labour—that is that is from the human labour of everyday workers and the environmental and natural resources all around us, understood as being held ‘in common’ and valued as necessary for the flourishing of all. The question would be how to secure all of this illicitly accumulated wealth and expropriated property over against the majority needs of the commons, as something that is yours and yours alone—as your private property. At some point, you might believe it expedient to make some attempt to rationally justify or legitimate such illicitly held monies and expropriations, ideally at both an ethical and political level.

If so, Thomas Hobbes would be your man, and the Leviathan your moral bible. The Leviathan is a philosophical treatise that attempts to bring together both a theory of human nature and a moral theory based on utilitarianism. Thus, Hobbes goes to great length to persuade readers that it is reasonable to invest power in a single all-powerful political sovereign, not based on obsolete notions such as heredity, but on a ‘civilized’ utilitarian calculation—a calculation that presupposes a very attractive theory of human nature which views us as fearful beings, potentially murderous, but fundamentally pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding machines. Hobbes utilitarian wager is that the majority of people would happily give over their own individual freedom and sovereignty—their solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short existence in the dog-eat-dog world of nature—to a more civilized, wise and all-powerful sovereign who would protect them from harm and see to it that they would experience less units of pain and more units of pleasure.
What is crucially important to understand here is that from the perspective of utilitarianism, the 16th century sovereign is really not much different than the modern neoliberal cabal of super-rich corporations or politicians, the authoritarian fascist dictator or the merciless military leader. In other words, it is precisely its view of human nature and its normative neutrality that makes utilitarianism work for the authoritarian or the wealthy elite—and also what makes it so profoundly repugnant to anyone who values intrinsic goods like justice, art, human dignity, friendship or love of another. The normative emptiness or apparent value-neutrality of utilitarianism is practical and advantageous because it can mask as an egalitarian moral principle that justifies anything you like—from democratic ideals to totalitarian initiatives.

But, you protest, isn’t utilitarianism all about what the majority wants, not what the elite few or the sovereign ruler wishes for themselves? This is where a theory of nature meets up with theory of morality: from Hobbes to Bentham to J.S. Mill the principle of utility and indeed the utilitarian oriented ‘social contract’ is founded on a primitivist theory of humans as selfish, fearful, autonomous atomistic pleasure-seekers and profit-maximizers who are more than ready to give their individual sovereignty over to a political leader or other powerful group that promises to secure them from pain or the threat that is posed by the ‘outsider’.

Given such a theory of human nature it should come as no surprise that utilitarianism can work perfectly well within modern capitalist autocracies, totalitarian bureaucracies or fascist corporatist states. In all of the latter cases, what matters are not intrinsic goods like justice or human dignity, virtues like friendship, moderation or benevolence, but efficiency and cost-benefit analyses. Thus, utilitarianism fits seamlessly into a contemporary political-media context fixated on strategic calculations of candidate popularity, the results of polling data or the present public perception of a given social or economic issue. Utilitarian assessments are indispensable when a political culture is guided more by questions of self-interest and expediency or absorbed by survivalist fear and distrust of others. As soon as one begins speaking the language of inherent human rights, about the intrinsic dignity of humans as unique and irreplaceable beings, or about the need to preserve the health and well-being of the planet for future generations, utilitarian pleasure calculations drop out of consideration—indeed, they become quite visible to us in all their naked amorality. At once, it becomes perceptible that the vacuous, amoral utilitarian efficiency model has been employed as a perfect justificatory, pseudo-moral framework for declarations of war, mass incarceration, the wealth maximization precept undergirding tort law, the claim that industrial farming must continue in order to satisfy the demands of increasing populations, the view that mining of precious minerals and extraction of oil and gas is appropriate because it meets the energy and technological needs of a modern world, and so on.

Neither should it be terribly surprising that utilitarianism could also perfectly accommodate the repressive policies of totalitarian governments from both the perspective of the masses and their ‘dear leaders’. The uncounted masses of bitter, frightened, angry, unemployed, lonely and dispossessed people who believed they have been betrayed by the wealthy, powerful ‘few’ could instantly do a utilitarian calculation that would appear to justify the embrace of a strong-man dictator or authoritarian who promised to give them back their power and lost dignity. Indeed, under the rubric of such an abstract utilitarian ethic, they would be more than willing to not only inhabit but venerate the racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic perspective of a potential ‘Emancipator in Chief’.

More to the point, even a lousy utilitarian calculator would have no trouble concluding that in such a case, ceding to totalitarianism would be acceptable and even morally praiseworthy since it would promote the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’, or more aggregate happiness in a smaller number than in a greater number—which is another version of the same kind of calculative approach.

Meanwhile, from a utilitarian perspective, totalitarian leaders could justifiably claim that it is both necessary and morally acceptable to impose severe austerity programs, purge non-believers, imprison or starve dissenters, torture suspected terrorists or blow perceived enemies into oblivion because, after all, the good of the many outweighs the good of the few—or the aggregate happiness of the important and essential ‘few’ outweighs the aggregate happiness of the rabble. It’s all the same game because it’s all just calculation based on a pleasure-pain theory of human nature. Unfortunately, it is not at all a ‘disinterested’ or objective game.

What utilitarianism does supply its adherents, besides a convenient theory of human nature, is a moral invisibility cloak that enables them to escape any obligation to critically assess or evaluate their own selfish actions in light of more substantive and deeper moral notions like freedom, justice, friendship and dignity. Unlike Marx’s workers, the Utilitarian’s of the world have long since ‘united’—and frankly, they own the place.

Fred Guerin (Ph.D) writes about and teaches environmental philosophy in Powell River, British Columbia.